gazettelogo.gif - 2815 BytesThe Sunday Gazette
Arts & Entertainment
04/02/00, G-01

By KATY MOELLER, Staff Writer
Crime novelist taking part in Institute series

ALBANY -- He's written 36 books and is widely regarded by both critics and readers as the kingpin of crime fiction. Almost every book he's written in the past 15 years has been a best seller, and many have been optioned for movies. And, scads of loyal readers -- some of whom write him fan letters from prison -- are eagerly awaiting the release of his new book, "Pagan Babies," due out in September.

But Elmore "Dutch" Leonard hasn't let all this adulation go to his head. The 74-year-old novelist is well aware that he isn't yet a household name, as was evident in a recent episode of the TV game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Leonard watched breathlessly as a contestant mulled over this question: What author wrote "Out of Sight," "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown" (actually, the book is called "Rum Punch")?

"The guy said, `I'm going to have to ask the audience,' " said Leonard in a phone interview from his Michigan home.

The audience wasn't too sure, either, though a small majority selected Leonard over authors Scott Turow, Terry McMillan and John D. McDonald.

The contestant went against the audience's better instincts and failed to advance toward the million-dollar jackpot. Nevertheless, Leonard is always tickled when a neighbor calls to tell him that he is the subject of a game show question. Once, he was an entire category on "Jeopardy!" "They stayed away from it," said Leonard, who seemed to find the players' lack of knowledge about his work more funny than deflating. Leonard will be at the University of Albany on Thursday as part of the New York State Writers Institute's Spring 2000 Visiting Writers Series.

He'll hold an informal seminar on screenwriting and talk about his experiences in Hollywood at 4 p.m. in Page Hall, 135 Western Ave. At 8 p.m., he'll read from his work. Both the seminar and the reading are free.

Quirky criminals

Leonard's books feature twisting plots and quirky criminals of all stripes -- from bootleggers to bank robbers to go-go dancing hitmen.

Critics admire Leonard's ability to write crisp, clean and believable dialogue for characters from a wide range of backgrounds. He has also been praised for both the humor and unflinchingly realistic violence in his books.

Leonard has long been compared to mystery writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett -- a mixed blessing. He has never really understood why his work was lumped into the mystery genre, which is dominated by books with trench coat-clad gumshoes. Leonard sees his books more as "novels that have crime in them." He doesn't do detectives, but there's always a crime.

"I accept the fact that I'm a crime writer. That's what I do -- guys with guns," said Leonard, who counts Ernest Hemingway, John O'Hara, George D. Higgins and Richard Bissell among his primary literary influences.

"Every year, I'll meet more people who say, `I haven't read you because I don't read that kind of book [mystery/crime], but now I'm looking up everything that you've written.' So if I hang around long enough . . ."

Leonard's new book is about a priest who returns to Detroit from Rwanda. Part of the idea for the book came while he was reading Philip Gourevitch's nonfiction book "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda."

"We have the same agent," Leonard said. "I talked to him [Gourevitch] for two-and-a-half hours. His book was filled with the facts -- other books about Rwanda didn't touch on the genocide."

Some of Leonard's recent works include "Be Cool," (1999), "Cuba Libre," (1998); "Out of Sight," (1996); "Maximum Bob," (1991); and "Get Shorty," (1990).

Leonard, who has spent most of his life in Michigan, began his career writing Western novels. In the 1950s, the genre was popular. So it was a good way to make a little money while learning the craft, Leonard said.

Creative process

His job writing Chevrolet ads for a Detroit advertising agency put food on his family's table until he was able to devote himself full time to writing fiction. He worked on his novels each morning -- from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- before heading off to work.

During those early years, he penned "The Bounty Hunters," (1953); "The Law at Randado," (1954); "Escape from the Shadows," (1956); and "The Last Stand at Saber River," (1959). Today, Leonard writes from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday, in the living room of his home. He sits in a dark red leather chair with wooden arms and spreads his things out on an oak desk.

He writes everything longhand, then taps out the finished product on his typewriter. He doesn't own a computer, but he does have a Web site: www.elmoreleonard.com.

"I'm going to be 75 this year. How many more [books] will I do? I don't know," Leonard said. "[Writing] is the most satisfying thing I can think of doing. Really getting into a book and getting to page 150, . . . bringing these people to life -- it's a lot of fun."

Since 1982, Leonard has used a Los Angeles researcher to dig up or find information he might need for his novels.

"I don't like the research," Leonard said. "I would spend so much time in the library looking for something, then be distracted by something else that I found."

But Leonard does enjoy research that involves listening and observing people, including cops and criminals. And he's done a lot of both -- largely in Michigan and Florida -- which happens to be where many of his books are set.

Leonard chose to live outside Birmingham, Mich., even after his career took off because that's where four of his five children live. His kids range in age from 33 to 49.

"We sit around and we have a lot of fun talking," said Leonard of occasions when they all get together for dinner. "We all have the same sense of humor."

Successes

Leonard was first able to carve himself a little financial breathing room in 1967, when he sold the movie rights to his book "Hombre." It bought him some time to write the novel "The Big Bounce," which was made into a movie starring Ryan O'Neal in 1969.

In the '70s, Leonard worked as a screenwriter while writing crime novels. There was "Valdez is Coming" (1970); "Forty Lashes Less One" (1972); "Fifty-Two Pickup" (1974); "Mr. Majestyk" (1974); "Swag" (1976); "The Hunted" (1977); "Unknown Man No. 89" (1977) "The Switch" (1978); and "Gunsights" (1979). It wasn't until 1983 that Leonard was really "discovered."

That was the year that "LaBrava" -- his 23rd book -- came out. The book won the Edgar Award, which honors the best mystery of the year.

In 1985, Leonard hit the best-seller list with his book "Glitz." The book was turned into a TV movie starring Jimmy Smits in 1988.

Though Leonard never wanted to do a continuing character -- John D. MacDonald told him that writing about Travis McGee all the time made him nuts -- he admits that the male lead in many of his books are "the same guy with a different name."

Is he like any of his characters?

"There is a character who says he hates to jog," Leonard said affirmatively. "It's so boring."

Leonard prefers tennis. He's even got a court in his back yard. Critics have said much of Leonard's best work was written in the 1980s. That's when he wrote "Gold Coast" (1980); "Split Images" (1981); "Cat Chaser" (1982); "Stick" (1983); "LaBrava" (1983); "Glitz" (1985); "Bandits" (1987); "Touch" (1987); "Freaky Deaky" (1988); and "Killshot" (1989). Of his own work, Leonard said he doesn't have a favorite, though "Freaky Deaky" did come quickly to mind; the book was named for a sexy and popular dance in the late '70s and early '80s. He also is partial to "Riding the Rap" (1995) and "Pronto" (1993).

Despite the label he has earned as a mystery writer, Leonard doesn't read mysteries. In fact, it's been 40 years since he read Chandler and he's never been into Hammett.

He likes to read a variety of authors. Some of his favorites include Margaret Atwood, Anita Brookner and Don DeLillo. He often reads before bed, but it's pretty slow going these days. Currently on his bedstand is Gunter Grass's "My Century," Ian Frazier's "On the Rez" and "Beowulf."

"I'll read about three or four pages and then I have to re-read them the next night," he said, insisting that he wasn't joking. "I'm a morning person."

Copyright - The Gazette Newspapers

DCSIMG